I’m coding lyrics for my book project, and I get to “1 million Body Bags” by Public Enemy. About the dangers of Malt Liquor–this track is released around the time St. Ides makes it rounds (with claims of increased virility after consumption). There’s a line in the track that goes as follows:

But look watch shorty get sicker
Year after year
While he’s thinkin’ it’s beer
But it’s not but he got it in his gut

So the day is winding down and I’m thinking I can find a nice link that tells me what it is, if it isn’t beer.


So what makes malt liquor different from beer?

Two things prevent normal lager beer from achieving higher levels of alcohol. First, yeast cannot break down “unfermentable” dextrins. Think of these as long chains that are simply too big for a little yeast cell to feed on. Because the dextrins cannot be devoured by the yeast and turned into alcohol, they remain behind in the beer to provide body and flavor. Second, yeast is a living organism, and it dies when the alcohol level rises above a certain level; the yeast is essentially killed by the alcohol it has produced. This ends the fermentation, again leaving behind a portion of unfermented sugars that add body and flavor to the beer.

But with malt liquor, some things are done differently.

One: The mash contains 10 to 20% dextrose, sugars that the yeast can go right to work on. (The mash is usually made up of 50-60% malt, 30-40% corn grits and 10-20% dextrose. This produces a mash with a higher original gravity, i.e., a solution with more fermentables, hence the use of the phrase “high gravity lager” by brewers who want to brew malt liquor without the taint of the name “malt liquor.”)

Two: Heartier strains of yeast, such as those used to ferment wine, are used. These yeasts can tolerate a higher level of alcohol and higher brewing temperatures. (In addition to producing more alcohol, these yeast can also produce some wine-like flavors, which provide a portion of the basis for claims of “tastes like champagne.”)

Three: The “secret ingredient” that sets malt liquor apart from strong lagers — an enzyme called alpha-amylase is added to the mash to break down the longer chains of dextrins, so virtually all of the sugars become fermentable. This means that the brew will have more alcohol and fewer residual dextrins, therefore less body and flavor.

In summary: Stronger yeast have more sugars to work with and produce a beer with more alcohol, less body and some unusual flavor notes. Voila, malt liquor.

I’m not only living in the home of The Wire…but also the home of the modern 40 Ounce as we know it. Go figure.